91: Into the Machine

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain (orbit).

VGV Motherboard.

Observation Deck.


The chute Ubik was in went up to the top of the ship, but it wasn’t meant for use by average deckhands. You couldn’t just pop up and have a look around when you felt like it.

The observation deck was the exclusive domain of the important and the eminent. Top brass and VIPs. And, of course, maintenance crews. They needed a discreet and quick way to get up there when things went wrong.

A lot of the repairs were automated — drones and internal software systems that would go into action as soon as a fuse was tripped or a bug detected. But there were some jobs that drones could do better than any human, and some jobs drones couldn’t do if you gave them fresh batteries, the latest update and an extra pair of arms.

A drone clean-up crew, for example, couldn’t tell if a bathroom still inexplicably smelled of vomit after being disinfected three times. You could always build a specialised drone for that task, but why when you could send the lowliest members of the crew to do it for no extra cost?

It was the small, occasional jobs where humans excelled. They had an excellent range of abilities, most of which weren’t very prized or sought after, and easily improved on by machinery, but the human nose had yet to be eclipsed by olfactory technology. Certainly not for the same price.

The chute was a narrow pipe wide enough so you could stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width and touch the sides. Which was what you needed to do to start moving once you entered. If you didn’t, you would just float there, weightless. Once you touched the sides, even if you moved your feet away, inertia would carry you.

There was a special liquid between the walls that created less friction than a vacuum — negative friction. It also absorbed momentum and distributed it. It wasn’t quite perpetual motion, there was a cheat to it that was a heavily protected secret, but it was good enough to provide energy-free travel around the ship.

Ubik kicked off the walls to increase his velocity. It wasn’t advisable to do that during busy periods, people jumping in and out through the regular openings along the shaft, but Ubik wasn’t anticipating much activity on the way to the leisure area. People were a bit too busy to be taking a break. He was, however, expecting Chukka and her people to eventually work out where he’d gone.

It was convenient that Vendx had cleared the decks for him. It made it much easier to get around. It also helped that surveillance systems were of an inferior build on the lower decks. And the greatest help of all was how poorly trained the security teams were. The ideal Ubik trifecta.

Ubik was well aware of Vendx’s training policy: hire in bulk, wait for the naturally gifted to make themselves known, give the rest heavily engineered equipment that would do most jobs adequately.

With the number of employees they had, there were always going to be some people who only needed minimal training (the only kind available), and the Vendx manufactured equipment was good enough for everyone else.

The constant system reboots going on around the ship were keeping him from being detected, but even if that weren’t the case, it was unlikely there would be any security in a chute like this one. There was no need.

If an employee entered a zone they weren’t authorised to be in, their pay would get docked. If they failed to meet any of their contractually stipulated obligations, what they had to do, what they mustn’t do, they would get docked.

People respected fiscal punishment much more than ethical or moral ones. You could survive as a debtor, but you would do much better if you managed to stay in the black, even if it was just a toe over the line.

Vendx provided their staff with everything they needed. Medicine, food, protection from the elements, and protection from boredom.

They were a complete and independent biome with their own internal economy. Lose a leg, get sick with a debilitating virus, go insane — Vendx would fix you, no charge. Quicker they got you back on your feet, the quicker they got you back to work.

Family member ill? No problem, all covered, just sign them up to be an employee (finder’s bonus for every person you bring in). Your kids are covered and have a guaranteed place with the firm (which they’re legally required to take up once they’re old enough).

There were some people who said the contract was no better than indentured servitude, that the conditions weren’t fair. Ubik didn’t agree. Fairness was relative. Their conditions were a lot fairer than starving. Much more generous than leaving someone to bleed to death in the street because they didn’t have the money to pay for treatment. Ubik saw Vendx as a fine and upstanding corporation. Relatively.

Their employees couldn’t afford to leave, but why would they want to? No one else was going to take them in.

The top of the chute was approaching. The coloured lights on the walls were flashing, warning him to get off. He stepped out of the portal, using his hands to push himself through.

The air felt different here. Cooler. Sweeter. Ubik was floating in the middle of a beautifully designed hallway. The way the walls were curved at the corners, the colour scheme of red and gold, the carpet — carpets in space! — it created a feeling of opulence and comfort.

Why carpet when there was no gravity? It looked plush and thick, but it was no ordinary carpet. It was nanotechnology, designed to grip the shoes of designated people. If you were in the system’s little black book, the nanites would recognise you, and hold you, one step at a time. Artificial gravity via astroturf. One of Vendx’s most extravagant products.

Ubik’s name was not on the list. Even with his access to the ship’s computer, he couldn’t give himself clearance — that had to come from Head Office — but he didn’t need it. He clicked his heels and his boots planted themselves into the soft, luxuriant bed of nanites, crushing thousands with each step. A shame — a very expensive shame — but he wouldn’t be able to talk the talk if he couldn’t walk the walk.

The main part of the deck was deserted. There was a large open area with seating and bars and a fountain shooting holographic water into the air, but no people. Apart from two.

There were two guards floating either side of the doors to the executive simulation room. They were dressed in very fancy, brightly coloured outfits. They looked a bit like mascots for a sports team. Ubik knew people enjoyed going to see competitive games with rules to keep things fair and honest, but he had never seen the point of it. If you want to win, the first thing you did was ignore any laws. Laws were what cheaters put in place once they had an advantage.

The guards didn’t seem unduly surprised to see him. The ship was under martial restrictions and mass panic… down below. That meant nothing here.

He walked up to them, his feet leaving miniature death and destruction in their wake.

“Hello,” he said with confidence. “I was told you’d be expecting me.”

“Ah, yes, sir. Your name?” The guard, fully-visored and in a battlesuit he probably couldn’t get out of without assistance, was faking it. He had no idea who Ubik was or who might have sent here, but the kind of person who came swanning in like they owned the place was not someone you wanted to annoy. He wasn’t just a guard, he was a professional doorman.

“Ogbollen Jedman III,” said Ubik, hoping he’d be able to remember the name later and wishing he’d gone with something shorter. “My father is the Grand Vizier of Fraiche City, you’ve probably heard of him.”

“Of course, sir,” said the guard. “Let me just pull up your details and I’ll be able to show you where to go.” He opened a screen on his HUD, the lights playing across the inside of his visor.

“My family’s on the full tour. I got a bit bored, so they sent me up here. You’ve got a fancy sim-U, I was told. Better than the one in my room, apparently.”

“System busy,” said a voice, much more urbane and suave than the computer voice in the lower decks. “Please try again later.”

“Ah,” said the guard. “Apologies. It seems there’s a heavy demand on resources at the moment. Should ease in a second.”

It was unlikely to ease for several hours. Rebooting was the most resource-intensive process the ship’s computer underwent, and it was in a constant loop of them. Everything was backed up and slow to the point of static.

“Should I call my father? He can clear this up. He’s with that Mayden chap. Wait, is that right? Mayden? Maybe it was Maven.”

The two guards exchanged looks. One looked down at Ubik’s feet and then back up at his colleague.

If the carpet accepted you, that meant you had clearance from on high.

“The sim-U, was it? If that’s all you’re here for, just go in. I’m sure they have your information uploaded.”

Classic Vendx policy — when in doubt, pass the problem onto someone else.

“It’s through here, is it?” Ubik pointed at the door. It slid open.

“That’s right, sir. Please go through and have a very pleasant experience.”

Ubik walked in and the doors shut behind him. He was in a small cubicle and it was moving, although it was hard to tell in which direction.

The sides fell away, the roof with them, and he was in a huge glass dome. The stars glittered and the planet was a blue and red marble off to one side.

The room contained a number of smaller glass domes covering luxury sim-U recliners. Not the stiff-backed chairs that most simulation machines were hooked up to, these were fully-supporting, no neck pain when you woke up in one of these.

“Excuse me! Sir, excuse me. This is a restricted area.” A young man was floating towards him wearing a light suit with a simple design, white with silver trim, his helmet deflated and hanging off the back of his collar like a hood. A second sim-U tech came floating after him.

Bluffing wouldn’t work here. They wouldn’t set him up in a sim-U without proper approval, and there wasn’t going to be any.

“Hi,” said Ubik. “I’d like a go in one of these, please.”

The man looked confused. “We aren’t operational today. Everything’s been shut down because of the irregularity on Fountain.”

“There’s been a breach,” said the other slightly older man. “They say it’s a software anomaly.”

“Who said that?” said the first man.

“I heard it on chatter, just before it crashed.”

“It hasn’t crashed, nothing’s crashed, it’s buffering.”

The two of them seemed more interested in the goings-on in the world of malfunctioning simulations than the stranger in their midst. They must have assumed, if he was here, he had a reason to be.

Ubik looked up and around at the heavens. It was an impressive sight. And then you got into a bubble and experienced the fake version.

There was movement outside the dome. Small objects rising in formation.

“I’d like you to open one of these up and link it to the Gorbol simulation machine,” said Ubik.

“What? No, no, we can’t do that. There isn’t even a direct connection.”

“Very inadvisable, even if there was.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard,” said Ubik. “It’s already connected to the machine on the third deck.”

“Don’t be — wait, who are you?”

“I’m with them.” Ubik pointed up. They followed his finger.

“What are those things doing here?”

“What are they? Oh, they’re…”

“They’re interceptor drones, but why…”

They both looked down at Ubik again.

“What did you say your name was?”

“Do you know why spaceships don’t have windows?” asked Ubik.

“Of course,” said the younger tech, who seemed to be in charge. “Cold laser weapons can fire through glass…” He looked back up at the drones and frowned. “Interceptors aren’t equipped with cold lasers.”

“I’ve made a few modifications,” said Ubik.

The man looked unconvinced. He looked back up at the drones surrounding the dome and squinted.

Ubik walked over to a table with a crystal vase containing a beautiful arrangement of fake flowers. He tried to pick the vase up, but it was stuck to the table for obvious reasons. Ubik still made a show of trying to pick it up.

“I guess we’ll have to do it here.” He looked up at the dome. “Yes, should be fine. Could you both stand back?”

The two men, who had been watching closely, moved away from the table, as did Ubik. They waited — nothing happened. Ubik smiled and put his hands in his pockets, seemingly unconcerned.

There was a small whine you could hear just at the back of your ear, and then the vase exploded with a pop. Fake petals floated off in every direction.

“Sorry about the mess,” said Ubik.

Both men looked up at the drones. “Hanzo, why don’t you set up sim-U number three for this gentleman?”

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